Agni Pariksha: Violence Against Women and the Test of Fire

When I was in my late teens, visiting Calcutta (this was pre-“Kolkata” conversion, not that renaming a place changes its ethos), I was groped by a guy as my cousins, my mom and I stood on a curb waiting to cross over to a shopping mall. Stunned, I whirled around and glared — I was so shocked that the expletive-laden tongue I’ve cultivated in the nearly 20 years since was struck silent. He locked gazes with me, defiant, those coal-black eyes unrepentant, as he vanished into the crowd.

Yes, I still remember his eyes. His pencil-thin mustache. The abject hatred for a girl he didn’t even know but felt he had to touch. What I also remember is the mix of empathy and shrugging from many female family members. “Oh, I’ve been groped xyz times…” was the refrain. Everybody had an assault story. As though we were trading campfire tales, because it’s so normal for Indian women to experience unwanted touches.

That’s what it was couched as: normal, every-day behavior from men that just had to be endured and accepted. I would roam the para, our neighborhood, with my cousin sisters and we would, without fail, pass packs of young men clustering on street corners and staring at us like prey. We walked a little faster, made scornful comments to stave off our fear, but there was nothing we could do to stop how they looked at us and, more than that, how they saw us. Like meat.

Almost 20 years later, it’s still an issue…that gaze. That hatred. “The India rape case” trumpets western media in headlines, as if there’s just the one…but there are multitudes. From rape to street harassment and forced touching, I honestly don’t know a woman who has lived in/visited South Asia who hasn’t been victimized or depersonalized in one form or another. I haven’t heard all the campfire stories, but that’s because women aren’t generally encouraged to tell them. After all, why would you acknowledge something commonplace? “It’s raining today, I went to the bajaar and, oh, some creep felt me up on the metro.”

Where did it start? This normalization of violence against women? I honestly don’t know. But it goes back thousands of years. As much as politicians would like to blame modernity or video games or movies, it’s been around since before the Bible’s Eve and the apple and Jezebel being tossed out a window. I’m pretty sure the first caveman to club a woman over the head and drag her back to his cave—a common joke that’s very unfunny—never watched a Tarantino film.

The Ramayana, one of the world’s oldest epic poems, considered a religious text by many Hindus, is basically a treatise on victim blaming. If only Sita hadn’t coveted a golden deer. If only Sita hadn’t crossed the barrier Laxman drew in front of her house. If she had just known her place, she wouldn’t have gotten kidnapped by Ravana. And of course her husband, Rama, had to listen to his kingdom’s demands to test her purity via trial by fire after she got rescued. Of course he had to demand a purity test again when, years later, it was revealed she’d birthed his twin sons in the wilderness. It wasn’t Rama’s fault, though. He was just trying to be a good king, you see. What kind of example do you present to your people if you have a loose-moraled wife, right? Sita, subsequently, “gave herself back to Mother Earth.” She killed herself. Like so many girls in India do today because they can’t bear the weight of shame after being assaulted. Sita was the first to make that “honorable” sacrifice of herself, and she is sanctified because of it. Sita ki thara pavithra, being “as pure as Sita” is an ideal set for Hindu women. Be brave, be certain of your honor and your purity even when it’s questioned, even in the face of men’s violence. Endure, and the fire of judgment won’t touch you.

Male hatred of women, men considering women playthings for their use because they dare leave the house/look up/breathe, is deeply ingrained into society. Not just Indian society—look at the Steubenville rape case and the GOP’s War on Women. Oh-so “civilized” America, the Greatest Nation in the World, despite a patina of progress, is frequently no more enlightened in the feminism department than its foreign comrades. And let’s not forget that the original title of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s wildly successful The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which contains graphic depictions of rape, was Men Who Hate Women. So, I’m not going to lay this solely at the feet of non-western cultures but, instead, the global culture where men have power and privilege and not nearly enough education and empathy. Autonomy and safety for women is a rare commodity in that society. In our society.

And it’s not something women should have to simply endure. We cannot just share stories and shrug. We need to hold men accountable. We need to hold ourselves accountable. We need to hold society accountable. Those of us who have voices need to speak for those whose tongues are frozen. Those of us with matches have to light the way. Because the thing we often forget about campfires? They can burn out of control. They can become raging wildfires. They have become raging wildfires, prompting voting rights, property rights and equal protection under the law. Right now, in this moment, so many women—and men, too—are burning to make a difference. And it is my unfailingly naive hope that the flames of change sweep India and sweep the world.

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